The contender Q&A: Jackie Earle Haley
Jackie Earle Haley's career trajectory — from '70s child and teen star ("The Bad News Bears," "Breaking Away") to relative industry outsider to Oscar nominee for his turn in "Little Children" — has continued its upward path since his return to the profession. He's morphed into a solid and versatile character actor with a knack for intense, force-of-nature figures like the masked vigilante Rorschach in Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" and the dream-lurking murderer Freddy Krueger in the revamp of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," due in 2010 (watch the trailer below). With choice roles in Martin Scorsese's period thriller "Shutter Island" and the upcoming series "Human Target," Haley does not appear to be resting on the laurels of his "Little Children" turn.
Haley spoke with The Circuit during a break in shooting on "Human Target" to discuss the challenges of playing not one but two well-loved pop culture figures, the toll that Rorschach took on him and the joys and fears that an award nomination can bring.
There aren't many actors who would consent to play a role in which the entire face is covered for the duration of a film, but with "Watchmen" and now "Nightmare on Elm Street," you've done two. How did that affect your performances?
I embraced it. They're both obscured in different ways. Rorschach just has a sock over his head, and I remember that, at first, I was concerned about that, because as an actor your face is your main tool. That's the window into your soul, and when you cover that up, that's a scary process. I gave a lot of thought to that, and what I ultimately decided to do while we were in the rehearsal process, I thought, "What do you do with a sock over your head?" And I finally deemed that you do what you always do — you embrace this character, find him internally and you work internally, not externally. And in doing that, I found that it worked — I would continually double-check the monitor, and I found that 98% of the time, what was going on internally was being conveyed to the audience. But there was that 2% where I would look at the monitor and think, "That's not quite coming through." So I would have to just animate the suit — just find it externally to get the point across. In acting, you find a strong base approach, and everything else moves around according to the environment.
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And in terms of playing Freddy, which is still just a mind-bogging thrill because I got to play an even more iconic character than Rorschach, that was such a different experience. With Freddy, it really was this incredible makeup design by Andrew Clement — it's this silicone-based stuff that's incredibly articulate. It's completely covering your face, but at the same time it's unlike the sock — that one, you can still see [the features of the face]. I'll tell you, it was a really odd experience — it was practically torturous. It started off as a six-hour process, and as they were dialing in the look and the colors, they got it down to a three-hour process where they're just covering your entire head and shoulders and neck in glued-down pieces. It's such an odd feeling in that stuff. They put a foggy contact in one eye and a bloodshot one in the other, and I felt like I was cocooned in or separate from everybody. I couldn't see, and then I had a knife-glove on one hand, so I couldn't use it, and extended fingertips on the other, so I couldn't use that either. It was a really odd feeling that took a long time to acclimate to. For the first couple of weeks, if I was thinking it, it was just shooting out of my mouth. I had no political filter. It really took me a while to rest into this guy, but I did find that whole feeling sort of otherworldly, so I took that and handed it to the character. Rorschach, by comparison, was incredibly easy. You just put a sock on your head (laughs). But even with that, if I was in it for more than, say, 15 minutes, it'd start to get warm in there. But I could take it off. Freddy's makeup, you don't take that stuff off.
These two characters also have vast fan bases, and I'd dare say that they were pop culture figures. People have very distinct preconceived notions about both of them. What is the challenge for you as an actor to put your own stamp on them?
Well, the challenge is often psychological. It's just so scary to take on an iconic character like Rorschach or Freddy. For Rorschach, it was scary because there is this legion of fans that are almost like gatekeepers to the property — they feel like they have ownership. It's such an amazing piece of work that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have done — it really changed the way people saw comic books, and came at a pivotal time when they were going from child's fare to adult fare, and that could encompass the fun and fantasy of the genre, but still look at things in a sophisticated way — and Rorschach was a major part of that. So the opportunity to play this guy was like, "What an incredible honor, but what a scary idea." Whenever you take a group of people — I won't name any, but, oh, let's say Congress — and try to think that they're all going to share the same preconceived notion, it's not going to happen. Everyone's going to have their own idea, and I'll have one too. But it's the type of thing that, as an actor, you have to embrace it, you have to go for it, do your best, and then let the chips fall where they may. People will experience what they experience.
With Freddy, it's scary for a whole different reason. Freddy is such an iconic figure, and so is the actor that played him, Robert Englund. I think there are a lot of fans of the property that are up for seeing a new "Nightmare" and a new Freddy. But there's also a hard-core base of fans to whom just the notion of it not being Robert (in the role) is difficult for them. So that's kind of scary, and I hope they like what we've done. But you know, I'm not Robert, and, at the end of the day, they wanted to start over with a new Freddy, and they came to me, and, man, I can't tell you — when they asked if I wanted to play Freddy Krueger, the answer is, "Yeah!" And you just go for it, risk and all. If I didn't do it, someone else would. And along with knowing that there are so many Robert fans out there — and I'm glad there are Robert fans — what tempered that for me was the reports from fans on the Internet saying, "Yeah, this is the guy you want to play Freddy." That was kind of cool to see that there was a contingent that said, "If you're going to do it, use this guy." Same thing with Rorschach.
That must've felt good to read, and for two separate roles.
Yeah. It helps to build your confidence going in.
The characters you've played in recent years are complex, and their arcs through their respective films don't take a very easy route. They're risky roles, and I'm wondering if that was a factor in your choosing them.
It's kind of a nothing ventured, nothing gained [situation]. These characters are complex, and there are some similarities, some darkness in the fact that they're unhinged, but to me I've found a diversity in these guys. Ronnie [in "Little Children"] was the most real of the group. He's a bit more grounded in the real world. And as I was doing the research and looking into pedophiles and such, trying to understand that thought process can be really tough, especially when it's so different from who you are. But what I was able to do was to look inside myself and search for parallels that were similar, but in a different area. I can be an obsessive type of person, and I've had troubles with alcohol in my life, so I was able to find these parallels within myself that I could then relate to Ronnie.
With Rorschach, it was completely different, and I found that this character affected me more than I affected him. The psychological filter of Rorschach, of who he is and how he looks at this world, his filters made me more cynical. I don't share in his right-wing sensibility, but it was really to the point that during the making of this film, there was something about Ronnie that I could leave on the set, but with Rorschach, I'd go home and kind of isolate. And I'd be looking at the campaign for the presidency through the prism of Rorschach as I was filming, and it made me more independent. At the time, I was quite isolated — my wife wasn't with me, I was spending too much time alone and really examining the complexity in his world, and it would drive me nuts if I looked at it for too long. I was trying to examine the human condition, and when you're watching the world fall down around you, you start to wonder: What is the human condition? And the answer to that is clear: It's corruption and greed. It takes a minute to find the other human conditions around that, but I'll tell you, those sure seem to be the driving forces right about now.
Do you feel that, as you get some distance from the role, you might be able to see a wider range of conditions?
I think that life is an ever-changing kind of thing, and it's easy to become disillusioned and stoic when you're trying to look at all this complexity. But at the same time, you can also find that place where there's a lot of love and beauty and care, in and around all of these horrible things.
You've been on the receiving end of a lot of critical praise and nominations and awards in the last few years. What's your response to that?
I'm an actor, so I have to shift between complete insecurity and total elation, with frequent freakouts in between.
There's your emotional weather report, as Tom Waits used to say.
Exactly. I'll tell you, when you work on a character like Rorschach, who everyone has their own preconceived notions about, they'll either love it or hate it. And when they love it, it's just this huge warm fuzzy. As an actor, you really put it on the line. You have to let go, let it hang out and hope that people respond to it. And I don't mean like write something good about it; I mean when they watch it, they go on this ride with you. That's a wonderful feeling. But I think that when you're doing the work, it can be a daunting notion when you take a look at it, so you have to just take a quick look at it and push it aside. It's not something that you can consider every day when you're on set. It has to be about the work, and you can't be second-guessing it: "I hope they like it, but what are they going to think about it?" You just have to go for it.
Acting is never a competition sport. So it's a wonderful feeling when people and the critics respond to it, and winning an award is an incredible feeling. Getting nominated for the Oscar and winning the New York Film Critics Circle and some others — I can't tell you how amazing that was. You want to talk about elation. To this day, it's still surreal. You know, way back in the middle of my huge, dark hiatus, which people didn't think was a hiatus, people would ask me, "Are you bitter towards Hollywood?" And I'd say, "You know, you can't be bitter. It's not like they all got together and voted me out. It was just this thing where perceptions changed and it went where it went. But you know, it sure feels like they all did get together and actually vote me back in."
First photo: Jackie Earle Haley. Credit: Kemp Davis
Second photo: Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in "The Watchmen." Credit: Warner Bros.
— Paul Gaita
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